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Tech mogul Elon Musk has divided people in South Africa, where he was born, by commenting that a controversial anti-apartheid song chanted by the country’s third-largest political party was “pushing for the genocide of white people”. Since then, a photograph has been circulated online purportedly showing him as a child with his mother on the couch mistreating their black domestic worker during apartheid. However, this photo does not show Musk’s family. It was taken in Johannesburg in 1988 by American photographer Rosalind Fox Solomon and shows a girl, her mother and their domestic worker. Musk would have been much older at the time than the girl in the photo.

Posts shared thousands of times (here and here) on August 1, 2023, on Twitter, which is being rebranded as ‘X’, feature a picture of a white mother and child sitting on a couch while a black woman dressed in a cleaning uniform kneels on the floor next to them.

“This is Elon musk and his parent. They had a black women helper. Who was not allowed to seat on their sofas. Who was not allowed to ask any questions (sic),” reads one of the posts.

It adds: “Elon musk is a racist white man like his parents.”

A screenshot of the false post on X, taken on August 1, 2023

Some people rejected the claim as false while others believed it was Musk pictured with his mother.

Screenshot of post replies, taken on August 1, 2023

However, the image does not show Musk, his mom and the family’s domestic worker during apartheid.

Unknown family

A reverse image search revealed the photograph was taken by American Rosalind Fox Solomon (archived here).

The photo appeared in an interview with Solomon (archived here) in the arts magazine American Suburb X in 2005, and was captioned: “Mother, Daughter and Maid, Johannesburg, South Africa, 1988”.

Screenshot of the photo and caption in the 2005 American Suburbs X article

Musk, who was born in 1971, was already a teenager in 1988.

A New York Times article about his childhood shows him in a chess team yearbook photo from 1985 when he was at Bryanston High School and already in his teens.

Screenshot of the high school yearbook photo featuring Musk in 1985, taken from the New York Times article

Musk on SA politics

Musk recently caught the attention of South Africans after he responded to a post on X, which he owns, that showed a video of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) 10th birthday celebrations on July 29, 2023. In the video, party leader Julius Malema led his supporters in a chant singing “Kill the Boer, the farmer” (archived here).

Musk replied that the EFF was “pushing for the genocide of white people in South Africa”.

Screenshot of the posts on X

The Boers are the descendants of Dutch settlers in South Africa. The word in Afrikaans means farmer.

Musk received mixed reactions to his comment, with support from some who have accused Malema of inciting ethnic violence, and backlash from others.

As reported by AFP (archived here), Malema then called Musk “illiterate” at a press conference in Johannesburg on August 2, 2023.

The war of words between Musk and Malema comes amid a broader debate over the controversial anti-apartheid song.

The chant has landed Malema in trouble before. Last year a court ruled that the song did not constitute hate speech, but an appeal is pending (archived here).

Professor Elizabeth Gunner, who took the stand on behalf of the EFF leader in 2022, said the song and other many provocative songs were not literal and sometimes carried a symbolic message aimed at sparking debate (archived here and here).